Following Release Follow Up

AoifeTheRambler asked some great follow-up questions in a comment on my previous post, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to answer them because I think they are important issues we all deal with when using the following/automatic release.  While I don’t claim this is the definitive ruling on any of these issues, in my opinion and based on my experience, this is how I’d address them:

Q:  “I used to keep my shoulders back (along with most of my torso) no matter what back in the age of the crest release, but now I curl up slightly when I go forward. Is this due to the release, and if so, do you have any tips to fix it without interfering with my release?”

A:  Most of us are taught to ride with an arched back and square shoulders to go along with the crest release.  And with the crest release, this kind of position is possible because the elbows are bent and the support of the upper body rests in the hands, not the hips and back.  Pressing into the hands will actually tend to push the shoulders back.

But when you remove the hands from your upper body support, all that changes.  Now it’s mostly up to your hip, back and abs to hold and balance your upper body.  Arching your back and squaring your shoulders is only going to lock your upper body position in place, preventing you opening and closing your angles naturally with the motion of the jump.   And it’s also going to restrict the following motion you need in your shoulder and arm to give the release properly.  (Try it now while sitting in your chair – it doesn’t work! ;-)

I would say you should still aim to maintain a straight (not arched) back by folding at the hip rather than the waist, but don’t get too upset if your shoulders round forward a bit as your whole arm reaches forward and down to follow the mouth.  I think this is perfectly natural and any attempt to keep the shoulder square while releasing and stretching the arms forward is going to cause unnatural bracing and have weird consequences elsewhere in your position.

Q: “I'm not fully sure about how much contact I'm meant to feel over the fence. I sometimes feel like I'm giving away too much rein, though longer reins suit my horse. How should the contact feel?”

A:  One of the most important advantages of the following release is consistency.  It doesn’t catch the horse in the mouth suddenly in mid-air or completely drop the contact in front of the fence the way a crest release does.

I would say the best guide for how much contact to have in the release is dictated most by the amount of contact you have in the strides leading up to the fence.  If you are steadying to the jump with a stronger feel, then that is probably the best level of contact to maintain over the jump; that won’t upset the horse’s balance in front of the fence and has the added advantage that you’ll have the same steadying contact on the landing that you did on take-off, so you’ll be in a better position to manage the pace and collection to your next fence.  You still have to follow, but it’s ok to keep that feel as you do.  And, of course, if your horse is light and soft, a light soft contact in mid-air and on landing will work beautifully.

The biggest goal is to make as few sudden changes as possible; treat the jump just like another canter stride as much as possible.  But when in doubt, always err on the side of giving away too much rein than holding too much.  Between grabbing the horse in the mouth/restricting with the hand and having too loose a rein, the loose rein is always the lesser of two evils.

Q:  ”Is it a sin for my leg to be further forward than my hip? I try to "crouch" like the cross country riders in your original post on the automatic release, but it's hard to close my angles while maintaining the line between hip and heel. How do they work in unison?”

A:  From a technical standpoint, it is the most balanced "ideal," and if it’s something you’re worried about, there are a few things you can check first.  Does your saddle have a forward enough flap for your stirrup length?  Sometimes if stirrups are too short or the flap isn’t forward enough (or both) it will be tempting to keep the knee anchored in a secure place and orient the rest of the body around it. Keep an eye on stirrup length and practice the habit of riding with your knees forward and down, allowing your heel to come back under your hip as your knee angle closes.  And, yes, your lower leg will move back behind the girth where many riders are taught the leg should never go; this is normal, so don’t panic if, as you shorten your stirrups and close your angles your leg moves back a little.  It may end up a hand or two behind the girth when you’re in position.

But not everyone has the same conformation, and it’s possible your angles just aren’t going to close that way.  That’s perfectly normal.  It’s also the case that, the shorter the stirrups, the farther you’ll get from the “ideal.” Our bodies are designed to balance themselves by keeping the foot more or less under our center of gravity.  Your position will be strongest when that center lines up with your hip and your heel.  But everyone's is different depending on how they're built, and neither position is static – your center of balance will shift slightly depending on the rest of your position.  The more you shorten and crouch, the more out of line it wants to be; think of a jockey’s position.  It’s more important to keep your ankle under your center of balance than in line with some theoretical ideal.

So no, it’s not a huge sin so long as your balance is secure.  My rule of thumb for position is based on function.  The best question you can ask yourself about your jumping position is:

“If I were picked up off my horse and placed on solid ground in this exact position, would I still be able to stand comfortably on my own in good balance?”  Be brutally honest.

If the answer is:  Yes, this is easy… then you’re fine.

If the answer is:  Well, maybe if I put my arms like this or flail around a little, etc…. then you may be asking for trouble.

And if the answer is:  Ouch!  I think I just fell on my ass!... then you’ll need to work on getting your heel under your hip a bit more.

That’s also one you can test out now off your horse – first, make sure no one is watching ;-) Then, stand up and crouch down into a jumping position, closing all the necessary angles (don’t forget your ankles!)  Test how it feels with your hips in front of your heels, in back of your heels; open and close your hip angle, etc..  Anything you can maintain comfortably, keeping your eyes up, your back flat and your shoulders loose while moving your hands forward and back in a following motion is where you want to be on your horse.  Anything that makes you feel like you might fall on your face or your ass is going to need adjustment…

This rule, for me, applies to your riding position at all times, on the flat or while jumping.  If it doesn’t work on the ground, it’s not going to work in the stirrups.  Not everyone will agree, but it makes the most sense to me.

Anyway, hope that answered your questions.  Let me know if there’s anything I can make clearer or if you have any other questions!